Announcing the 2015 Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award

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Billie Burke in her most famous role

This is a guest post is by Laurie Sanderson,
Executive Director of The Ziegfeld Club,
which will sponsor The Marbury Project
on The Clyde Fitch Report
through December 2015.

Billie Burke in her most famous role
Billie Burke in her most famous role

The Ziegfeld Club is proud to announce a collaboration with The Clyde Fitch Report in sponsoring The Marbury Project through the remainder of 2015. Sponsorship will deliver one essay a month from an emerging or established woman in the theatre on a topic of importance to them as it relates to women in the theatre today. As the Executive Director of the Ziegfeld Club, I am pleased to write our inaugural essay.

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Described by The New York Times as one of “New York’s pioneering feminist institutions,” and “Broadway’s best kept secret,” The Ziegfeld Club, Inc., was one of the first not-for-profit organizations serving the Broadway community.

We were founded in 1936 by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s widow, Billie Burke, famous for portraying “Glinda the Good” in The Wizard of Oz. This was the same year that the MGM film The Great Ziegfeld was released. Burke formed our Club to “Keep alive and cherish the memory of Florenz Ziegfeld” and as a sisterhood in order to help women who had performed in her late husband’s world-famous Follies who had fallen on hard times. Several of these girls joined the Follies when they were as young as 14!

After the Follies, most of the girls went on to have careers and stability in their lives, but many had no training for anything outside the theatre. When this happened, the Ziegfeld Club was there to help. When a girl who’d gone from the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies needed help — some were living in shelters — they might write a letter asking us for help, and our sisterhood would pay their rent, or get them food, or pay their doctor bills, or cover the cost of their medicine.

Laurie Sanderson, Executive Director of The Ziegfeld Club.
Laurie Sanderson, Executive Director of The Ziegfeld Club.

Ziegfeld Girls came from stage mothers, from vaudeville, and, in the case of my grandmother Nanon, from a Brooklyn orphanage. In that orphanage was a nun, Sister Mary, who dreamed of being a ballerina. She saw in my grandmother a little dancer, and so she gave my grandma bus fare to sneak into Manhattan for dance lessons. Nanon was a good performer and eventually made her way to Ned Wayburn, Ziegfeld’s choreographer. If Wayburn thought a girl was talented, he gave her an audition card. The girl would present it at the stage door of the New Amsterdam Theatre and she would be admitted for an audition.

In the Follies, my grandma, who stood 5’2”, was a “pony” — the smaller dancers who executed difficult choreography while the taller showgirls wore costumes so elaborate that they couldn’t dance, instead gliding across the stage doing the “Ziegfeld Walk,” a technique Wayburn created.

During a fitting one day, a costume designer asked my grandmother, “Do you know how to do anything besides sing and dance? Because when this is all over, you’re going to need a skill.” The designer suggested that she take a typing class. “If you can type,” she told Grandma, “you can always work.” So my grandmother took typing lessons at the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school at 40th Street and Park Avenue.

After the Follies, my grandmother spent many years performing on the road in vaudeville. She also had two children, and when her husband died in the mid-‘50s, she moved back to New York with them. The first Monday after her return she got a job as a typist. My grandmother later joined the board of the Ziegfeld Club as corresponding secretary — as did my mother later on, and as I later did as well. I have been involved with the Ziegfeld Club since I was 12. In that year, my grandmother took me to my first Ziegfeld Ball. For decades the Ziegfeld Club hosted this spectacular event, a prestigious Broadway gala that crowned a star of the stage as “Miss Ziegfeld.” Honorary Miss Ziegfelds included Barbra Streisand, Angela Lansbury and Bebe Neuwirth. A relaunch of the Ziegfeld Ball is planned for the spring of 2016 to commemorate the 80th jubilee of the organization and to continue to celebrate women in musical theatre.

Several years ago before my leadership, there was a flood at the office of the Club and 30 percent of our archives was destroyed. As Executive Director I have digitized what survives of our archive — nearly 3,000 items. Our organization’s archive contains the DNA of theatrical history — in New York as well as Hollywood. Most of it has never been seen.

We hold so many stories of faith, hope and survival. I would like to share two of those stories with you.

Whatever became of...Ann Pennington?
Whatever became of…Ann Pennington?

Ann Pennington was a pony — she stood 4’11 ½ ” — and a spectacular performer. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1893, she made her way to New York City and debuted 100 years ago in Just Girls, part of Ziegfeld’s “Midnight Frolic” on the famous New Amsterdam roof, and of course on the stage of the New Amsterdam itself for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915. She helped to popularize such dances as The Shake and the Quiver Dance. People lined up for hours to get tickets to see her. It was said that she would levitate when she danced. People said, “Don’t blink your eyes when Penny is on stage because you could miss one of the most memorable experiences of your life.” A sign on her dressing room door read: “For Men Only.” She was the toast of the Jazz Age; her best friend was Fanny Brice. Ann earned $1,000 a week.

After the Follies, Ann went to Hollywood. She was successful in silent and talking films. She lived with her mother and ultimately ran straight through all of her money on three things: hotel bills, gambling and giving to church charities. After her mother died, Ann ended up back in New York City — Hell’s Kitchen to be exact, living in an SRO. She pushed a shopping cart through Times Square to sit in the Automat and drink black coffee, then five cents a cup. She wrote letters on powder-blue stationary asking the Ziegfeld Club for help to pay for aspirin, cat food and rent.

Agnes O. was a chorus girl. Like Ann, she moved after the Follies to Hollywood to be in pictures. Agnes once sent her photo to the Ziegfeld Club. It shows her on the MGM lot during shooting of The Great Ziegfeld, costumed for the popular “You Gotta Pull Strings” finale in which a chorus of girls would sing while tossing long white ribbons over the orchestra and into the audience. The audience would then pull and pass the strings overhead to the person sitting behind them, and as the strings were pulled, hundreds of balloons would be released and cascade down on the crowd.

Agnes wrote this letter to the Ziegfeld Club in 1954:

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Conditions force me in desperation to contact the Ziegfeld Club. I sold my first piano and other valuables to raise funds. I pawned all my jewelry to pay doctor bills for my mother’s illness thank you to the club for helping me.

Introducing the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award.
Introducing the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award.

Things have changed greatly for theatre women since the Ziegfeld era. But this change is coming much too slowly. Of the 11 new plays on Broadway during the 2014-15 season, one was written by a woman. Of the 10 new musicals, one had a book by a woman. Think about that: one female librettist represented on Broadway. Of course, that person is Lisa Kron, who won a Tony for her book for Fun Home. And the score for Fun Home — lyrics by Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori — won the Tony for Best Score. So that’s nice, but Fun Home was only the third Broadway musical in the last quarter-century to have its book, lyrics and music all by women. That’s one musical every eight years. (Oh, and during the 2013-14 Broadway season, 68 percent of the audience was female.)

All these numbers demonstrate an urgent need to support theatre women now. At the Ziegfeld Club, since 1936, we have been devoted to just this mission. Now in the 21st century, one of the ways the Club can fulfill its mission is through the establishment of the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award, which will be given to an emerging female composer-lyricist (or composer-lyricist team) that can compellingly demonstrate financial need, professional initiative and outstanding artistic promise in songwriting for the musical theatre.

Eligible candidates for the award must currently reside in the U.S., and consist of a majority-woman team that includes a female composer. Eligible combinations include:

  • Single female composer-lyricist
  • Female composer, female lyricist
  • Female composer, male lyricist

Individuals that identify as female-gendered, as well as cis-gendered women, are eligible for the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award.

The recipient of the 2015 Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award will be chosen by a selection committee of industry professionals chosen by myself and the board of the Ziegfeld Club, and will be presented at a reception in New York City hosted by the Club in October 2015. A list of honorable mentions will also be announced.

The recipient of the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award will receive an award of $10,000 as well as professional mentorship by a prominent musical theatre composer or lyricist. We will begin accepting applications for the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award on Wed. July 1, 2015. The deadline for submissions is Sun., July 26, 12am. Finalists will be notified by Fri., Aug. 21, with the recipient of the award to be announced at a reception in New York City in early October.

Applications for the Award must include the following:

A demo recording of one song from an original work of musical theater by the candidate, or team of candidates, as well as an explanation of the song’s dramatic context. Professional recordings are appreciated but not necessary, and piano-and-vocals are sufficient. The song should be sent as an MP3 file, and labeled with both the candidate’s name and the song’s title. Applicants retain all copyright of their work.

Florenz_Ziegfeld_1932
Dear Mr. Ziegfeld…

Finalists will be required to submit a portfolio representing a larger body of compositional work. If chosen as a finalist, the candidate should be prepared to submit recordings and sheet music of four to seven songs (not submitted in the first round) from one or more original musicals as well as descriptions of the songs’ dramatic context. Once again, professional recordings will be appreciated, but are not necessary.

If submitting as a team of candidates, finalists will be required to submit additional material as the same team.

Please do not submit live recordings.

A personal statement of one page or less (no more than 500 words, single-spaced) describing your work in musical theatre, and how the Award might aid you in your artistic and professional goals.

Finalists will be invited to a personal interview (either in person or through Skype) to further discuss their candidacy for the Award.

Applicants must also submit an up-to-date CV that lists the candidate’s experience and production history as an emerging musical theatre songwriter. Applicants will be considered eligible as emerging artists if, in the judgment of the committee, they have not already received substantial recognition in American musical theatre. If submitting as a two-person team, each candidate should submit a separate CV. All CVs should include contact information, including mailing address, daytime phone number, and email address. A completed application form can be downloaded at theziegfeldclubinc.com.

To submit an application for the 2015 Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award, please send the required materials to the following email address: [email protected] For more information on the Ziegfeld Club, please click here.